Just Don’t Get Sick
By Steve Clemens, FPC Duluth. May 11, 2006
My past exposure to city and county jails and federal prisons had led me to counsel fellow peace activists who risk time in the lock-up to try and stay healthy 'cause prisons are not the best places to have close encounters of the medical kind. I've read stories of how Dan Berrigan almost died in the dental chair at the Danbury Federal Prison. I personally watched "the Interstate Man" (that's what he called himself in 1981) in Potter County Jail in Amarillo, TX go into a seizure, waiting for 20-25 minutes until the guard arrived, only to see them 'cuff him and throw him into solitary ('the hole') for the rest of the night before seeing the doctor the next day. Trustees in the jail assured me that the guards would not have treated past inmate Cullen Davis the same way had he a seizure when he was charged in the murder-for-hire of his wife--after all, he was a millionaire and the local sheriff allowed him to send out for his meals.
I had no intentions of doing first-person "investigative" journalism on the medical care at a federal camp this go-round in the slammer. But the unexpected does happen and fortunately I survived to write about it. First, one needs to understand the protocol of FPC Duluth. Clear rules and boundaries are established to remind one that he is not visiting his family physician. (I guess not; I got arrested, tried, and acquitted with my family doctor, Kevin Kelly, in ‘97 in a protest against the manufacture of land mines by Alliant Tech.) We are instructed not to address any medial staff of the prison by their first names--sorry, Kevin, if you worked here (which I'm pretty sure your conscience wouldn't allow), I'd have to address you as "Dr. Kelly." The other "patient friendly" gesture among many is the sign posted in the sick bay/pill line area reminding you if you are present in this area without an appointment other than during sick call (10:30-10:45 am) or the three scheduled pill lines, you are "out of bounds" and subject to a disciplinary shot. In case of an emergency, you are to be escorted by an officer or staff member.
When one does go to "sick call," one is taken to a back hall and told to sit and wait for the nurse after you filled out a form outlining what problems you claim to have, when they began, and what level of pain or discomfort one is feeling on a 1-10 scale. I say problems you "claim" because it seems like everything else I've experienced on the "inside," the first impression/ reaction of the staff is to suspect that the convict is trying to pull a fast one or get out of work or somehow get something he doesn't deserve.
The nurse asks about your symptoms, takes a temperature and blood pressure if indicated and then tells you to return to work or your dorm and wait for your name to be listed on a "call out sheet" posted every day before the 4 pm count for next-day appointments. It might be the next day, next week, several weeks... When we had our routine dental exam upon entry to this 'camp,' the dentist told us that the present wait was several months for routine fillings or one's annual teeth cleaning. I know many prisons are more apt to pull any teeth that present problems rather than try to restore them. I'm not planning on trying for any first person research in that area!
Even well-meaning staff are caught up in a system designed not to promote the well-being of a patient but to "help" get inmates back to their legalized slavery work assignments. At times I hate to use the 'S' word because in many ways most prison labor (except maybe some of the chain gangs) does not approach the reality that slaves experienced in this and many other nations. But just as it is hard to compare a federal prison camp with the SuperMax in Florence, Co, where Ted the "Unabomber" Kyzinski, Timothy McVeigh's accomplice Terry Nichols, Richard Reid "the shoe bomber," and now Zacharias Moussaoui will "rot" in their solitary prison cells with no human contact whatever, there is a similar essence to any prison. As Papillion, the famous escaped French prisoner from Devil's Island said at the end of his life--"A prison is a prison," making no distinction ultimately between solitary and "Club Fed." In like manner, we can say "a slave is a slave" without differentiating between the black man forced to chop cotton and the minimum security inmate working for 12 cents an hour. In fact, in some state penitentiaries one is not compensated at all—just punished if not “producing.”
But back to the issue at hand—practice of “medicine” at the prison. How does one take the Hippocratic Oath (“First do no harm”) and work at a place that one should know will damage at least the psychological health of one’s patient? Even if the medical personnel want to serve their patients, the system does its best to limit the access. If you can’t go to medical on your own unless it is for sick call, one must convince other prison officials of the need first before you enter the medial area.
In my case, after waking at 3:00 am with fever and chills and them going to work with the addition of aches and pains in the muscles and joints, I asked my (inmate) work crew leader if I could leave early to go to sick call because I was feeling awful. He readily agreed as I’ve been a conscientious worker. I then approached the (inmate) food service clerk who serves as the overall supervisor for inmates assigned to work in food service. He told me to sign out, go back to my dorm and rest, and then report to sick call at 10:30. As I was about to walk out the door (the doors are locked between meals and inmates can’t get in our out without an officer unlocking a door), the officer on duty stopped me and asked where I was going. I explained I was sick and had permission from the clerk and my work supervisor to leave and rest before sick call. He said, no, I couldn’t leave—I should remain in food service until 10:30 and then go. After about 1/2 hour, seeing I was shaking from the chills and obviously pale and weak, he relented and ordered another inmate to “walk him down to medical.” Prior to this he told me he’d have to call an ambulance to pick me up for me to leave during working hours.
After painfully walking down to medial (about 1/4 mile) I sat there for 30 minutes or so before one of the three physician assistants walked by and asked me why I was there. I told him the food service officer sent me down and I started to describe my symptoms, starting with the fever and chills. He stopped me and said (without taking a temp or other physical exam) “It doesn’t appear to be an emergency to me. Go back to work and I don’t want to see you here before 10:30 sick call.” So I slowly (and painfully) walked back into the building-- where all the food is prepared and served to 900 inmates— with an obvious fever and chills. (Fortunately it wasn’t the first outbreak of Bird Flu!) After sitting on a stone bench, so cold I wore my jacket indoors for another 2 hours, I again shuffled back to medical to wait in the sick call line. Because of the intense pain I had in my groin, I was the last of the 9 to be seen that morning because I couldn’t move as quickly as the others when told to “go to the back and line up” to see the nurse. Even though I filled out the symptoms and pain level questionnaire, she planned to wait another day or two (or more) until my assigned P.A. “provider” decided to schedule me. Fortunately for my health and well-being, I chose to be proactive—and now I am confident of my care at St. Mary’s Medical Center in downtown Duluth—a room with a beautiful view of Lake Superior and the Duluth harbor.
Your Whole Family Does the Time
When a member of your family is in jail or prison the whole family is punished by the way “the system” is run. In some ways those on the “inside” have it easier than those on the outside because on the inside at least one knows what is (or, sometimes more important, is not) happening. Those not behind the prison bars (or “out of bounds” signs) are just left with their imaginations and the images burned into their subconscious by The Shawshank Redemption or the TV series Oz.
However, neither TV nor Hollywood movies could market the stories of mind-numbing boredom, so the video images we are routinely fed of prisons are more melodramatic than at least the reality of my two experiences of doing time at minimum security Federal facilities. (I’ve dropped my soap in the shower several times and it precipitated...nothing!) When family members hear only a “piece of news” (or rumor) from or about their loved one, it is left up to the imagination to fill in the gaps.
My recent hospitalization while imprisoned is a good case in point. I was fortunate enough to have the presence of mind and the ability to write down phone numbers for emergency contacts before walking to the medical office. I also was lucky enough to have a co-defendant with outside contacts and resources to pass those phone numbers to. Another piece to this troika of ‘grace’ was my knowledge of what was ailing me. I experienced a bout of cellulitis at Christmas ‘05 so as soon as I saw the tell-tale dark, angry red mass spreading on my right leg, I knew from experience I needed to be insistent about getting proper care immediately. Thanks to a friend, an ex-Vietnam Marine grunt who is now a nurse, I was told during that first episode that what I had was called ‘jungle rot’ in ‘Nam and I needed antibiotics right away.
So, while I’m dealing with the prison medical bureaucracy, John LaForge was armed with phone numbers for my wife and the Federal Judge who has offered to be our advocate (if needed) while the SOAW 37 are doing time, and my self diagnosis of what was the cause of my fever, chills, aches and pains—and new ‘badge of honor(?)’ on my leg. Because prisoners can only call phone numbers on their authorized list, John was able to contact fellow peacemaker Bonnie Urfer at Nukewatch — when the telephones were available after the 4 pm count cleared and inmates were released to go to supper--and she was able to alert my wife and Judge Bob Phares on my behalf.
Another advantage we co-defendants had was a form previously drawn up by Judge Phares authorizing the release of all medical records to him in the event of an urgent need. It only had to be signed by us and submitted to prison officials to authorize him to “go to bat” on our behalf. For me it was like Charlie’s ‘golden ticket’ in the Willy Wonka story in that when I showed the signed form to the prison’s medical staff, I’m fairly certain that the ‘tipping point factor in deciding to treat me in-house or send me to the nearby hospital was settled when I stated, “This is a medical release form so my lawyer, who is a federal judge, can have access to what is happening in regard to my medical care.”
While I was in the hospital, it took my wife 4 days before she was given permission to talk with me by phone. When the judge called the prison, he was told the medical release form would have to be discussed by some committee or other before he could talk to the medical staff at the prison. Before I left the prison I was handed a 13-point “Conditions of [medical] Furlough” to sign before I could be driven to the hospital where the ER staff would determine if I needed hospitalization. Besides the expected prohibitions on drugs and alcohol, “leaving the building in possession of firearms or being in contact with persons having a criminal record...” was also the amusing “no consumption of poppy seeds” which could cause a false positive drug test! It was lucky Number 13 that “helps” our families and friends to serve time with us: “Telephone access will not be available without approval of Federal Prison Camp staff.” Visitation is not authorized without the approval of FPC staff.”
I notified the FPC Staff before I left for the hospital that I wanted telephone access to call my wife and, if needed, approval for her and my youngest son to be able to visit 5 days later for our 28th wedding anniversary. It took 3 days to get the visit approved (since they were already on my BOP approved visitors list). Finally, the 4th day of my hospitalization I was told there was a long-distance call for me at the nurses’ station but they had to find me a phone (previously removed) for my room so they could transfer it. “Does this mean I’m authorized to receive and make calls?” I inquired after the phone was delivered. One of the hospital staff said “yes” so I was finally able to personally reassure my wife, kids and parents 4 days into my new venture of the prison medical labyrinth.